It's an unhappy day all around, at the end of it headed south on my bike out of Arcata through Bayside and just about ready to pass the post office when someone startles me by yelling out something I can't quite catch. But it sounds rude, so I make the informal hand gesture one makes at the end of a tedious workday while riding a bike home and getting yelled at from a passing car. I think no more of it as I ride past the Grange hall and onto the flat area where the water goes when Jacoby Creek overflows. About a quarter mile along I see a car pulled over up ahead, but it's a long way off at first, hidden partially by the roadside berries and weeds, so I realize it is the car that passed me by the post office gradually, while thinking about something else..
Three guys are getting out.
I'll be damned if I can tell you a thing about the car, whether it was a classic or something newer, but it probably wasn't anything special.
I'll call them Guys A, B and C, because I never got their names and didn't enquire. Guy A was about thirty, slim and wiry; he was the driver and seemed responsible somehow for the other two. who were a little younger. He was standing near the car's open door, facing me.
Guy B was taller, dark haired, broad-shouldered, and acted like someone frustrated with a great many things, accustomed to dealing with that frustration through periodic violent outbursts. He rode shotgun, and was a few steps into the roadway, blocking me.
Guy C seemed an inbred backseat shithead, of average size and no physical distinction, stringy-haired with a vacant expression that reminded me of someone who kills by accident. He stood between the others, menacing me and advancing so I had to stop.
Maybe there was a moment when I could have swerved around them or turned and fled but they had a car and the thought never occurred to me anyway. Obviously I took them for tweakers, and they backed it up with a belligerent display, one of them or maybe two grabbing my handlebars. They formed a tight semi-circle around me, but instead of fear I felt calm. I could see things happening but couldn't feel things.
We were in the driveway of a farm. the house at least a hundred yards away, in plain sight.
There didn't seem to be any witnesses at that point. The guys closed in. I could have rapped all three with one swing of a splitting maul.
Guy B spoke loudest. He wanted to know why I had made the gesture at them. He was deeply offended; one could see the temper rising in his forehead. Guy A was more moderate, but I think he wanted an apology, or had been convinced to seek one, perhaps out of boredom. Guy C, the cretin, was apparently the one who had yelled some sort of slurred phrase which he now stoutly maintained was meant as a friendly greeting. He, directly insulted, wanted an old-fashioned duel. and was anxious to get at me, but was cautiously held back by Guy A.
I want to think that at least part of the reason he and B held back from a direct attack at that point was that they weren't quite sure how much I had to offer in the way of defense. I affected a menacing posture as any primate would have, and promised them both that I could match them when it came to pent-up desperation. There seemed no doubt how it would turn out, whatever sucker punches I might get in on the way down. What surprised me was how much the idea appealed to me
Things could have gotten out of hand quickly. I was in no mood to apologize to a bunch of knuckleheads who were probably on the back road because they couldn't risk being seen on 101. As a daily bicycle commuter from my home in Freshwater to my job in Arcata, it was not uncommon to have things tossed out of vehicles at me, nor was it unusual to hear an insulting remark from a passing pickup truck.
My general sense of alienation made it possible to take such abuse for granted as little better than what I deserved, but if I thought I could score one or two points on my own behalf I wasn't above a wisecrack or two by way of sporting rejoinder. That was my official position in the impromptu debate which occupied the first few moments of our time together. At any rate I wasn't sorry; the noise I'd heard coming out of that back window hadn't sounded friendly, so I wasn't polite now, and when it came right down to it I was angry about a lot of things, profoundly and in detail, and I didn't get that many chances to express it.
Guy B got downright pissed when I said something sarcastic, and found a sizeable stone with which to beat my head in. He advanced on me and actually raised the stone and wound up to throw, but Guy A simmered him down with a few calming words.
Guy C made a feint at me and i couldn't resist telling him I thought he might have been born as the bizarre result of unprotected anal intercourse, just, I suppose, to see how he would react. He practically jumped up and down and flipped over like a dog when someone he misses comes home, but failed to carry out the attack, although I felt myself craving it. One on one I figured I would at least hold my own against him, and with a few lucky breaks I might come out ahead.
I calculated the various movements I might have to make to fend off attacks from B or C. relishing the sense of having nothing to lose, complete abandon to a senseless conflict over nothing, the willingness to die. There was a certain freedom, where what should have felt very dangerous felt kind of sexy and out of the ordinary. I remembered the way people wrote about their eagerness to volunteer for popular causes. That intoxicating sense of contrived glory.
That's not to say I thought dying in a pile of tweakers in the dirt on the side of the road would be a glorious way to go, even if I got in a few choice cuts during the fray, but the general idea of an uncontrolled outburst begins to look appealing after too long without one's preferred amenities, humble though they may be.
Guy A seemed to want to keep things from going too far although he did expect me to say something I wasn't prepared to say. I was lightheaded. .
At some point a figure came out of the farmhouse and I could hear a voice yelling, asking if the Sheriff ought to be called,
I think I yelled back or waved but B and C kept my attention focused, the one with his stone and the other by means of a dangerous, unprincipled attitude, as though he had not even the veneer of civilization that makes things like freeway driving possible. Either one would have gladly killed me then and there, and both expressed this sentiment clearly although with limited vocabularies.
I felt oddly that I was in control of the situation, since I was still alive four or five minutes into the dispute, but it was like being in control of something that wanted to kill me and still might. Guy A definitely deserves credit for calming his friends down.
When Guy B made his loudest threats, and seemed prepared to carry them out, I felt calmer than usual and promised him that I was, after all, for reasons he knew nothing about, at least as dangerous as he was. I probably haven't been in a real fight since junior high, but I know the cold feeling you get in the blood, and the way you can see the pulse in your eye, when you really are set to back up harsh words. I don't think he was intimidated.
It was a tense standoff. I made remarks. They made remarks. We scraped our feet in the rocks and dirt like bison, grunting but perhaps not really knowing why.
Ultimately, I believe, because Guy A had reasons not to want to identify himself for the cops, and possibly also because we all knew there would be witnesses to whatever happened, they got in their car and drove off, still pissed and dangerous,
All I could do was continue south toward Indianola. A few years before that, a young Eureka tweaker killed another one in a similar roadside altercation, by swinging an aluminum bat once or twice at the poor bastard's head. As I rode along between fields and woods I thought about how easy it is to get caught up in random brutality, and die an ugly death at the hands of a stranger. I experienced some of the symptoms of fear that had not been present earlier. I thought about how easily one can move from life to death, as easily as taking or not taking a single step.
I wasn't that surprised when they were waiting for me at a bend in the road, a half-mile or so from the Indianola cutoff, forcing me to get off the bike on a gravel shoulder. Guy B actually made the move; wrapped me up from behind, forced me to the ground, breathing down my neck, but did nothing meant to inflict injury. He just wanted to let me know he could have pinched me off like an asparagus. He was still pissed, but the murderous fury was gone. Perhaps Guy A had helped him see that my fate meant as little to them as theirs did to me; they had more important things to worry about.
The situation was more dangerous when he was threatening me with the rock. Now that we were intimate, he couldn't bring himself to bash my head in or take a poke at my ribs, which were vulnerable.
I simply waited them out. They spat and swore and Guy C jumped up and down calling me names, although not very imaginatively.
Guy A continued to play the diplomat. Guy B probably started to feel a bit ridiculous, lying on the side of the road. I wasn't aware of whether anyone passed; we were in plain view if they did.
After maybe five minutes in this position, they got into the car and drove away for good.